New York Jets: The true culprit of the Sam Darnold era was…

New York Jets, Sam Darnold

Adam Gase is far from innocent, but he’s not the primary reason why the New York Jets’ Sam Darnold era didn’t work out.

There’s no use in crying about the past, especially when the prior affairs are only three weeks old. But social media’s stranglehold on society and the NFL stretching its news cycle from eight hours on Sunday to 365 days a year have seemingly done away with rationality.

If invitations to Canton were granted through 280 characters or less, for example, the construction of Sam Darnold’s bust would not only be underway but his 2021 season might have its own wing. It’s easy to see why Darnold’s modern endeavors have earned their share of headlines: he’s the quarterback of one of five undefeated NFL teams and his redemption story is compounded by the fact his former employers, the New York Jets, serve as a running gag amongst professional and amateur football comedians alike.

The Jets’ reunion with Darnold was crossed off of their bucket list on kickoff weekend. It’s way too early to fully grade the trade that sent Darnold to Charlotte, especially considering two of the metropolitan spoils garnered (second and fifth-round picks next spring) don’t even have names yet. Realistically, the Jets shouldn’t worry about Darnold again until 2025, the next scheduled meeting between Gang Green and Carolina.

Yet, the omnipotent nature of modern NFL football doesn’t allow the Jets a moment’s peace (Carolina’s nationally televised win over Houston on Thursday hasn’t helped stop the spread). The fact that Darnold is playing an active role in the Panthers’ success…he’s responsible for six of Carolina’s eight touchdowns while the Jets have scored two over their first three games under Zach Wilson’s offensive watch…is placing only a bigger spotlight on both Gang Green’s past, present, and future blueprints.

As their team continues to sputter sans Sam, Jets fans have sought a main villain, a living, breathing entity whom they can blame for their predicaments. Former head coach Adam Gase has been the primary target as Darnold joins a list of breakthrough stars that have flourished upon his departure (joining names like Ryan Tannehill, Jarvis Landry, and Laremy Tunsil).

Such fingering is misdirected.

The Jets’ modern struggles obviously do not fully exonerate Gase. Surely the post-Gase success list (which has also welcomed the fortunes of Gase’s collegiate and professional teams) isn’t a matter of coincidence and, traumatizing as this season has been so far, his weekly denials that he was fighting with the faces of the franchise haven’t been missed. Besides, the obvious suspect, as so many other murder mysteries have proven before, is more often than not the one who did the deed.

Gase will require some extra supervision when he inevitably gets yet another NFL job (because the modern NFL loves, if anything, coaching retreads), but he’s shielding the real culprit: it was ex-general manager Mike Maccagnan, in the front office, with a misguided sense of roster management.

 Mandatory Credit: Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

The jury is still out on Maccagnan’s successor Joe Douglas, especially with the poor early returns of the Wilson/Robert Saleh era. But one thing Saleh knew what Maccagnan was doing wasn’t working: as of Sunday’s Week 3 contest (a garish 26-0 loss in Denver), only three players from Maccagnan’s last contest as the metropolitan decision-maker (Foley Fatukasi, Marcus Maye, Nathan Shepherd) remain on the modern roster. Half of Maccagnan’s ill-fated final class (in the ensuing 2019 draft) is already gone.

Douglas’ pruge of the Maccagnan is a microcosm of what Darnold had to deal with. The Maccagnan era was one of negligence and ill-advised splashes, one that tried to cover inefficiencies at the supposedly “boring” positions with high-profile signings.

From the get-go, Darold was mostly left to fend for himself. Maccagnan’s strategy seemed to be an incomplete cause-and-effect chart whose profits and yields relied on Darnold becoming an MVP candidate. The offensive cabinets assembled by Maccagnan consisted of the aforementioned big-ticket free agents equally saddled with big baggage (Le’Veon Bell) and that was just the beginning of the team’s issues.

In his all-too-brief time as the Jets’ thrower, Darnold was also stuck with first-round washouts (Breshad Perriman), former stars past their prime (Demaryius Thomas, Frank Gore), flash-in-the-pan breakthrough candidates that wilted under a brighter spotlight (Chris Herndon, Quincy Enunwa), and undeveloped projects that either didn’t work out (Terrelle Pryor, Jermaine Kearse) or remain a work in progress (Braxton Berrios, Denzel Mims).

All the while, Maccagnan almost completely ignored construction of the wall in front of Darnold. Save for some desperate moves late in his tenure…the ill-fated trade for Kelechi Osemele and drafting Chuma Edoga in the third round of his final draft…Maccagnan opted to go with blockers made of inconsistent one-year failed fixes. Darnold, for example, worked with three different primary centers (Spencer Long, Jonotthan Harrison, and Connor McGovern), an inconsistency set forth by Maccagnan’s failure to find a long-term solution.

It was a stark departure from predecessor Mike Tannenbaum’s finest hours: during his first draft in 2006, Tannenbaum chose Virginia tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson, passing (pun intended) on touted quarterback prospects like Vince Young and Jay Cutler. When they had a chance to take touted collegiate, skill player heroes like Joseph Addai, Sinorice Moss, and LenDale White, they instead opted to bring in Nick Mangold. Not only did those two blockers headline the closest things the Jets have had to recent glory days, but they also became two of the most beloved figures in franchise history. Tannenbaum surrounded his homegrown talents with accomplished veteran strengths like Alan Faneca and Damien Woody. Carolina had already restocked its blocking cupboard with Taylor Moton and Matt Paradis.

Compare that to what Darnold has to work with in Carolina: the Panthers found a way to unite him with Robby Anderson, one of the few things that were working with him in New York. Anderson was one of two four-digit yardage receivers Darnold now has to throw to, the other being DJ Moore. Of course, no one in Jets circles needs to be reminded about the impact Christian McCaffrey can have, as the returning running back served as the 187-yard difference in Carolina’s 19-14 triumph on opening weekend. Carolina’s defense has also come up huge; through a majority of Week 3 action, the Panthers are the only team in the league that has let up less than 200 yards a game (191).

Rather than the hapless Gase, Darnold is also working with accomplished offensive minds Matt Rhule and Joe Brady. The former is all too familiar with raising lost causes from the football abyss, taking downtrodden college programs at Temple and Baylor to unprecedented new heights.

Carolina is in the midst of working with a new general manager, having brought in former Seattle scouting expert Scott Fitterer last winter. Adding Darnold is by far his most impactful move to date, a trade that open a new chapter in the book of the Panthers, one that officially allowed them to move on from the Cam Newton/Ron Rivera glory days.

Mandatory Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Just a few months into the job, Fitterer has done more Darnold than Maccagnan ever did.

Darnold is no longer being relied upon to be the sole source of offensive sparks. Many of those pieces arrived before Fitterer, but also spent valuable offseason funds on the aforementioned defense: former Temple linebacker was reunited with Rhule and now leads the team in sacks (4.5). They used their first pick on South Carolina shutdown corner Jaycee Horn (though he’s set to miss some time due to a non-contact foot injury). The Panthers are only poised to upgrade further after Week 3’s events: according to NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport, they’re close to picking up former Jacksonville cornerback C.J. Henderson for tight end Dan Arnold and a third-round choice…a move the Jets, frankly, should’ve investigated further into.

Simply put, Fitterer appears to know the impact of surrounding a franchise quarterback with reliable help on all sides of the ball…a lesson the Jets are learning the hard way. Douglas at least appears to understand that on paper, having added accomplished veterans and using expanded draft capital on assistance in protection. There’s plenty of time to develop past the Darnold era and get things back on track. It doesn’t diminish, however, the progress Carolina has made with the former green thrower.

There’s no use in looking back on the Darnold era, at least not at this point on the NFL timeline, but that’s not the nature of modern football. If a (premature) culprit must be found, the Jets must start at the top. Blaming Gase is popular…but putting on Maccagnan is may be right for now.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags 

New York Jets positional preview 2021: Offensive line

New York Jets, Mekhi Becton

No matter who plays quarterback for the New York Jets in 2021, they’re going to need someone blocking for them.

The Position: Offensive Line
On the Roster: Greg Van Roten, Conor McDermott, Connor McGovern, Jimmy Murray, Mekhi Becton, Cameron Clark, Chuma Edoga, George Fant, Alex Lewis
Free Agents: Pat Elflein, Josh Andrews
Reserve/Future: N/A

If Joe Douglas made one thing clear upon taking the New York Jets’ general manager spot, it was that he was going to work on an offensive line that Mike Maccagnan mostly neglected.

Save for choosing Chuma Edoga with what became the final day two pick of his tenure, Maccagan avoided building the line with his early selections. Prior to Maccagan using one of his final picks on Chuma Edoga in 2019’s third round, Brian Winters was the last blocker chosen within the draft’s first three sessions in 2013. The last premiere choices were the legendary D’Brickashaw Ferguson/Nick Mangold haul during the 2006 selections.

Once Douglas got to work in the late stages of summer 2019, he quickly let everyone know that the Jets were under management by getting to work on the line. He sent a late draft pick to Baltimore to bring in Alex Lewis and convinced Carolina mainstay Ryan Kalil to delay his retirement. While the results have been mixed…the Kalil experiment blew up and Lewis has been in and out of the starting lineup…Douglas had a plan to build the offense up.

He kept things up last season, as Connor McGovern, Greg Van Roten, and George Fant joined the team through free agency. During his first draft, Douglas bypassed name-brand receivers like Jerry Jeudy, CeeDee Lamb, and Justin Jefferson to take Louisville tackle Mekhi Becton. The veterans struggled, but Douglas appears to have chosen a keeper in Becton, who served as a rare silver lining during his debut campaign. Douglas didn’t stop there, taking Charlotte football’s longest-tenured player Cameron Clarke with the last of three fourth-round picks.

Becton appears to be a long-term asset in New York, but many of the deals have opt-outs after a single year. In fact, the only free agent in the entire 2020 free agency class with a dedication beyond last season is Connor McGovern. Some cap saving moves…the release of George Fant would save the team over $5 million, for example…may lead the Jets to a complete retooling of their blocking for the second straight season…with the exception of Becton at the blind side, of course.

Questions plague the Jets’ quarterback situation, as many question whether Sam Darnold will get a fourth year in the franchise thrower role. But no matter who’s throwing, the quarterback’s endeavors will be meaningless if he has no protection. There’s a long way to go to finish building the wall.

Free Agents-to-be 

G Josh Andrews

Andrews was a career-long depth man who earned a Super Bowl ring with Douglas while serving on Philadelphia’s practice squad. He was initially part of the final training camp cuts, but he returned to partake in all but one game. He even started four, including the final three when Van Roten went down, the first starts of his career.

G Pat Elflein 

Bid farewell from Minnesota in November, Elflein was a bit of a peace offering for Adam Gase when the departed head coach Adam Gase butted heads. Since Lewis has been a rare consistent prescience in the Jets’ blocking corps, it’s likely that Elflein will likely ship off in search of new opportunities.

Will They Draft?

It’s a very strong possibility. Douglas knows the importance of picking a lineman and likely won’t hesitate to use an early pick to find either an immediate contributor or a depth option that could raise the heat on any returnees. If the Jets resolve their quarterback situation prior to the draft, many have pegged Oregon standout Penei Sewell to at No. 2. Sewell skipped the entire 2020 campaign but his breakthrough sophomore showing a season prior will not be soon forgotten. But with Sewell lining in the same blindspot as Becton, the Jets will likely seek help on the right side. Thus, choosing Texas’ Sam Cosmi or the versatile Rashawn Slater of Northwestern with the Seattle pick at No. 23 or their regularly scheduled second-round choice at No. 34 seems a lot more realistic.

Veteran Possibilities

G Joe Thuney, New England

Lewis has been serviceable at left guard, but if Thuney presents himself, the Jets would likely be in the running. The Jets targeted Thuney during the last free agency period, but the Patriots put the franchise tag on him. It’s likely that Thuney is going to look for some long-term stability this time around, and the Jets certainly have the cap space to afford such a premier blocking talent.

G Brandon Scherff, Washington

Over the past few tumultuous seasons of Washington football, Scherff has been a rare consistent silver lining…when he plays, that is. The four-time Pro Bowler hasn’t played a full season since his sophomore season back in 2016 but has been a dominant prescience in the nation’s capital. Bringing him in would be the true definition of a high-risk/high-reward situation.

T Daryl Williams, Buffalo

Signed to a relatively cheap one-year deal as a depth option, Williams came up big for the Bills when injuries hit their blocking corps, namely Cody Ford. He partook in over 95 percent of Buffalo’s offensive snaps and became a generally reliable piece alongside fellow free agent Jon Feliciano on the right side. A former All-Pro, Williams will likely seek a bigger contract this time around, but he can be looked upon as not only a solid contributor but as a provider of veteran guidance the Jets desperately need.

Outlook

A poor offensive line can sink even the most potent of offenses. Look no further than what happened to the Kansas City Chiefs during Sunday’s Super Bowl festivities. With Eric Fisher out, Patrick Mahomes was left running for his life constantly thanks to a relentless Tampa Bay rush ordered by Todd Bowles. The onslaught undoubtedly played a factor in the Chiefs’ eventual 31-9 defeat. New York, of course, is miles further from returning to the Super Bowl, so far away that the journey is probably going to take several years. The process should with building up the blocking. Draft Becton was a good start, and it certainly seems like the Louisville product is here to stay. But there’s a long, long way to go when it comes to protecting the quarterback on a reliable basis. Not matter who’s under center, the Jets need to bolster the wall in front of him. Douglas has gotten off to a good start in filling this dire need. Further change is undoubtedly coming, but whether it’s through the draft or free agency remains to be seen.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

New York Jets: Six Players to Watch Against the Eagles

New York Jets, Sam Darnold

With the final week of preseason games coming up the New York Jets will be resting all their starters to be prepared for week one of the regular season. Many players on the team have not yet secured a roster spot or will simply not be starting week one. With the cut day coming soon this could be the last chance these guys have to showcase their talent to the New York Jets.

Jachai Polite

Third-round pick Jachai Polite has had a rough couple of months from sliding into the third round of the draft to potentially being cut by the Jets. While it is unlikely that Polite gets cut he still needs to show some semblance of talent. Polite has been a disappointment in camp and hasn’t seen much of the field in the preseason. If Jachai Polite doesn’t show something against third-stringers on Thursday, then he might be a bigger project than anticipated.

Deontay Burnett

With a crowded wide receiver room and not many open spots, Deontay Burnett seems to be the odd man out. Burnett doesn’t offer any value on special teams like Josh Bellamy and Greg Dortch. What Burnett lacks in special teams he makes up for in chemistry with Sam Darnold. Burnett was Darnold’s favorite target at USC after Juju Smith-Schuster left for the NFL. Burnett flashed in his limited time last season and is a fan favorite but unless he can show out on Thursday it’s a coin flip on whether he’ll make the team.

Taylor Bertolet

Taylor Bertolet may have saved his job last week against the Saints hitting two field goals from 48 and 56 yards. Many people do not believe Bertolet will be on the team week 1 but he is building a strong case to make the 53-man roster. Bertolet is far from a lock to make the team but if he can muster up on last good performance, he might beat the odds and be the kicker week one.

Tevaughn Campbell

Tevaughn Campbell is one of the few players in the secondary who have done well in the preseason. Campbell led the team in tackles and PD’s against the Falcons and did his best against top wideout Michael Thomas on the Saints. If Campbell can pull off one final performance against the Eagles, then his long journey from the CFL to the NFL will be quite the Cinderella story.

Blake Cashman

After a hot start in training camp, Blake Cashman has cooled off quite a bit. Cashman hasn’t seen the field much since the Giants game due to injury, but he looked solid racking up three tackles last week against the Saints. Cashman will have one final chance to showcase his talent to the coaching staff and make his case to be starting week one. Even though its unlikely Cashman will start week one you can expect to see more of him later in the season as he develops.

Chuma Edoga

Chuma Edoga has been quite the surprise player on the New York Jets. Edoga was seen as a developmental tackle coming out of USC but he has flashed a lot potential. Edoga’s ability to play on either side of the line has impressed many fans and has earned him a spot as a backup tackle. I wonder if, by this time next year, we will be talking about Edoga being the franchise tackle this team has needed since D’Brickashaw Ferguson.